After a rather long post yesterday on a tendency within libertarian thinking towards ant-politics and a minimisation of the importance of democracy, some more positive thoughts . Let’s clarify where the ‘libertarian’ tradition stands on this. ‘Libertarian’ itself has an odd history, originally a designation used by anarchy-communists in France, it was taken up in America in the 1940s by those who wanted to continue the liberal tradition as it existed before the word was taken up by those who wanted a compromise between liberalism and socialism. So liberalism of the kind that anticipates libertarianism is classical liberalism though really that is usually considered to have reached an end in John Staurt Mill writing between the 1850s and 1870s. Mill’s 1859 On Liberty is often taken as the final great moment. Those writing between the 1850s and 1940s on classical liberal model continued to just call themselves liberal, and some like Hayek, never too to the libertarian label. They used the liberal label, recognising liberal thought from Locke to Mill as classical and seeing themselves as after the classics. The biggest influence on the libertarian scene, certainly from a popular point of view, was and is Ayn Rand (unfortunately to my mind) did not like the libertarian label at all, and condemned ‘libertarians’. It’s all very strange. Anyway, the person who probably really entrenched ‘libertarian’ as a label was Murray Rothbard. I’m not a fan of his writing or his version of libertarianism, but he certainly had titanic energy which led him to be a major (the major?) influence on the founding of the Cato Institute (the most influential libertarian body of that kind), before splitting with it and dominating the Mises Institute ,which continues to represents Rothbardian libertarianism, sometimes known as paleo- libertarianism.
So let’s go through the classical liberal, and post-classical liberal pre-libertarian (there is some overlap here) attitudes to politics and democracy. Are these thinkers anti-political, scornful of political participation and regarding democracy as either unnecessary to liberty, or as no more than a background condition to be given minimal attention? This is very definitely not the case with Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, Constant, Kant, Tocqueville and Mill, so most of what is taken as the classical liberal tradition. Montesquieu requires some particular explanation since some regard him as the promoter of monarchy, without any representative political institutions, in the modern world. His idealised vision of antique republics, at least before corruption sets in, and his favourable attitude towards modern Britain which he regarded as a disguised republic suggest something else. The post-classical pre-libertarian scene is represented for most people by Hayek, whose career heavily overlaps with the emergence of a libertarian scene. There are two strands of Hayek: a leaning towards antique republicanism and the grandeur of politics; a leaning towards nomocracy, a depoliticised sovereignty of law as emergent from communal standards of justice, developed by judges through a ‘discovery procedure’ of applying principles to cases. Other writers from that time include the other Austrian Economists, Menger, Böhm-Bawerk and Mises. Mises had the most to say about politics, though less than Hayek. He leaned towards a mixture of high minded 19th century parliamentarianism and political minimalism. The Freiburg School, of whom Wilhelm Röpke was the best known representative, had a major influence on the economic policies of the Federal Republic of Germany as it emerged from the allied zones of occupation after World War II, so does become part of politics. Joseph Schumpeter, the economist, did write about politics, and gives it some importance though mainly as a matter of consumer choice between two basic platforms (which is still more importance than that given by the anti-political libertarians).
So who were the anti-political liberals/libertarians. Wilhelm von Humboldts’ 1792 Limits of State Action certainly belongs there, but is in contradiction with his own political career. Really anti-political liberalism-libertarianism gets going in the 1840s and ’50s in with minimal state thinkers like Herbert Spenser and Frédéric Bastiat, and anarcho-capitalists like Gustave de Molinari, Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker. An interesting list, but not outweighing those on the political duty side at all, quite the opposite. There are interesting cases I’ve left out, because of research I have yet to undertake. I hope to have more to say about Germaine de Staël and Hyppolite Taine before long, for example.
There’s no reason to regard classical liberalism as anti-political, though it suits a perverse coalition of ‘republicans’ and ‘libertarians’ in to give another impression. That is something I frequently discuss and will again, soon. That means the Robert Nozick style libertarians (Nozick here purely referring to his book Anarchy, Stare and Utopia, not other stages of this thought). That is best represented now by Chandran Kukathas. The anti-political side of libertarianism is now best represented by Jason Brennan who is not a strict Nozick/Kukathas style minimal state thinker, so the anti-political aspect of anarchy-captalist/minarchist thinking had spilled over into more moderate forms of libertarianism, which has been on the rise academically at least for a few years now. Apart from Brennan, there is his doctoral adviser David Schmidtz, Schmidtz’s Arizona University colleague Jerry Gaus, John Tomasi and Jacob Levy to name a few of the most notable figures. That covers a range of views about politics, Gaus and Levy are certainly a lot less anti-political then Brennan, and give what looks like a positive aspect to the political sphere to me.
My reasons for supporting duty to political participation as part of libertarianism follow. Duty certainly does not mean legally enforced obligation, but does mean an ethical preference for participation, which is at least at the level of voting and making some effort to follow political news. There is no way of justifying such activities as inevitably always the best use of spending a particular segment than engaging in any other activity. In the same way that there is no overwhelming requirement at any particular moment to be a good friend, family person, or work colleague, all things we would all recognise as necessary to a properly functioning society. The libertarian political sceptics tend to rely on an argument for there always being something better we could do which would in practice stop us from doing anything. There is always a good argument for saying that whatever we are doing, we could be doing something morally preferable. We can only resolves these issues by considering what we find preferable for the flourishing of individuals and societies in their activities as a whole. Concern with the laws and institutions which define our public life, and the political process necessary to laws and institutions is part of such flourishing. No one denies that individual flourishing requires involvement with others and the community as a whole, we can only separate out public concerns and political processes from this in a very arbitrary way. The existence of all developed societies where liberty, prosperity and human welfare are all growing, is tied up with the existence of a public sphere and a political process. The societies like that in the world now are democracies. The major exceptions touted by the anti-poliitcs crowd are Singapore and Hong Kong both of which are moving towards more political life, as the dominant party in Singapore has been losing support, and as Hong Kong slowly moves towards democracy as part of the legacy of the last phase of British administration. Lack of substantive democracy in Singapore has also been associated with lack of civil liberties and element of social engineering which are not acceptable from a libertarian point of view anyway.
Since the anti-politics gang tends to resort to an individualistic calculation of advantage to criticise democratic participation, it is important to note that where there is participation there is what anti-politcal libertarians want. The other prong of that political scepticism tends to be that political participation means demanding that the state does something to serve some particularistic interest, so that the state keeps growing to satisfy an increasing aggregate of demands few of which serve the common good. This is a recognisable process, but exactly how to we define common good and the criteria for limiting state action without some democratic participation by those who live under that state? The libertarian anti-politics tends to end up as anarchism, a highly implausible view, from the radical end of libertarianism and becomes paternalism in the Brennan style of more moderate libertarianism. Returning to anarchism for a moment, anarchism supposes that we can have laws without a state, and that people living in the same are can live under different legal regimes, or that human society can be an aggregate of micro-regions with their own legal regimes, between which we can easily move. These would challenge basic classical liberal concerns for integrated markets, equality of rights, transparency of justice, and the means to prevent gross violations of justice within small communities which try to contract out of widely recognised standards of justice. The classical liberal-libertarian orientation towards individual rights and individualistic pride is better served by political rights for individuals of the kind that exist in a democratic regime, the opportunities for competition in ideas and in the pursuit of elected office, that are to be found in democracy. Democracy means competition between individuals and testing of new ideas. Both need participation in the public sphere, ideas in public policy come from people who want to contribute to the public sphere. Brennan type arguments in which only the cognitively better endowed should participate could only lead to a a smug paternalistic elite. No one has complete knowledge, no one can understand all that is going on, including the cognitive elite. The cognitive elite benefits from having to deal with explaining ideas to the less elite and the feedback that comes through the political process from the cognitively less elite. A cognitive elite isolated from participatory democracy will suffer from group think and create paternalistic solutions against libertarian principles. Libertarianism means dethroning the rule of experts, not reinforcing it. The market is one way of disrupting elite group think, participatory democracy is another. There are problems within participatory democracy, but these should be solved within the democratic framework, not through a resort to what in practice can only be disguised benevolent despotism, whatever other motivations political sceptics may have. Participation by a cognitive elite only is an endless process, since the arguments for a cognitive elite are arguments to keep narrowing that elite to find the most elite elite possible, and then insulate them from democratic ignorance. Democratic ignorance is better countered by democratic education, than handing over institutions to an elite. The more cognitively able always have more influence in practice anyway, so no need to make that cognitive elite intellectually flabby by convincing them and everyone else that they shouldn’t need to listen to the non-elite.